Georgia Bulldogs: UConn Huskies

Week 4: Wake-up calls

September, 24, 2013
9/24/13
11:00
AM ET
Byron JonesDavid Hahn/Icon SMIMichigan survived a nail-biting game against what was supposed to be a pushover team.
For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.


"WELL, it was a win ... that’s about all I’ve got."

You can't blame Michigan coach Brady Hoke for being speechless at his postgame news conference, as if he’d just gotten off a roller coaster. UConn certainly wasn't billed as the Top Thrill Dragster, but the Huskies shook up the Wolverines like an old, half-broken down ride that isn’t supposed to knock the breath out of you -- except that it does.

It didn't help that Hoke had to survive a nail-biter over what should have been a pushover opponent just one week earlier. On Sept. 14, Michigan needed a stop on the game’s final play to hold off lowly Akron 28-24. Then college football’s winningest program barely made it out of East Hartford alive, edging the Huskies 24-21. Yes, the same UConn that opened the season with a loss to Towson, an FCS opponent, by 15.

“You can’t give the ball away,” Hoke said, speaking of his team’s eight turnovers in two weeks. “We’ve got a major league problem and we’ve got to fix it, because that’s not going to win you championships.”

Ah yes, championships. By the time an overwhelmingly underwhelming fourth stanza of the 2013 season had finished late Saturday night, no fewer than three would-be BCS contenders nearly had their championship dreams crushed.

How close did they come?

Three yards, one finger and one toe.


  • At jam-packed Rentschler Field, where UConn welcomed Ray Allen and Derek Jeter and had to bring in more than 2,000 temporary seats to meet ticket demand, the Huskies hassled Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner all night. He threw two interceptions (one tipped) and fumbled away a snap. During one ridiculous five-minute stretch that ended the first quarter and started the second, UConn tied the score 7-7, recovered a botched punt that hit the leg of a member of Michigan’s return team, took the lead at 14-7 and then took the Gardner fumble 34 yards for a TD that made it 21-7.



  • The Wolverines clawed back to take the lead 24-21, but in the closing two minutes, UConn still had a chance to set up overtime or win in regulation. On fourth-and-29 from the Huskies' 33, quarterback Chandler Whitmer had receiver Deshon Fox tracked. The up-and-down Whitmer flicked a beautiful pass and hit Fox in the middle of tight coverage with a safety sliding over in a hurry. That safety, Jarrod Wilson, provided just enough help to drop Fox less than 3 yards short of a first down, which would have put UConn at Michigan's 41 with 1:43 remaining.

    Three plays prior to that pass, UConn already had been across midfield, but a pass for minus-2 yards, a false start penalty and a sack for a 12-yard loss had driven Whitmer back into his own territory. Reverse any of those plays, and that fourth down becomes a first down.

    “We’ve got an off week to work this out,” Hoke said as he departed for the bus and then the airport. “We’ll take 4-0. But we can’t keep counting on the breaks to go our way.”

  • Hoke didn’t know it, but he looked and sounded an awful lot like Georgia coach Mark Richt had earlier in the day, lumbering into a postgame presser as though he had sandpaper in his pants.


  • Anyone who has made a trip to Denton, Texas, recently knows that the North Texas football program has all the potential in the world. It's in a recruit-rich area with sparkling new facilities. But even the staunchest supporter of the Mean Green will tell you that coach Dan McCarney’s players still have a lot of work to do to meet that potential.

    Yet there they were, between the hedges, tied 21-21 with the No. 9 Bulldogs in the middle of the third quarter. The rain was beginning to pour. The Mean Green was a team ready to believe and the Dawgs appeared to be a team ready to go home. Then quarterback Aaron Murray led his team on an eight-play, 53-yard drive that he capped with a keeper for the go-ahead score.

    “Hey, we’re fine,” he told his teammates. “Just play ball and have fun.”

    And they did. In fact, the next drive (12 plays for 95 yards) was even prettier. But it nearly ended in disaster. On second-and-goal from the 4-yard line, receiver Chris Conley ran a picture-perfect, inside-to-outside route and was headed to the right-front pylon as Murray turned and flicked the ball toward the corner. North Texas’s Zac Whittlefield is a great athlete, a converted running back who is now an All-Conference USA candidate at cornerback. He hadn’t bit on Conley’s fake. In fact, he’d used it to set up a great inside move that put him on the goal line between Murray and his target.

    Whittlefield had a read on the ball floating toward him and actually appeared to take a quick glance downfield to see the open lane for what could be a 100-yard pick-six. He timed his leap and extended his left arm upward. He swiped and made contact. It wasn’t going to be a pick, but it was definitely going to be batted down. The pass hit three of Whittlefield's fingers -- he needed it to hit one more.

    Instead of being slapped to the turf, the ball dropped straight down … and into Conley’s hands. Whittlefield, assuming he'd broken up the pass, was stunned when the Georgia crowd erupted and he turned to see Conley celebrating. Down two scores, the wind out of its sails, the Mean Green lost 45-21 and Georgia’s one-loss title hopes kept floating.

  • Two nights prior, the coach who pinned that loss on Georgia, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, had also arrived to his postgame Q&A looking as worn out as Hoke and Richt. The Tigers had just survived an unquestionably ugly, 26-14 Thursday night win at NC State.


  • The initial volley of questions didn’t center on Heisman hopeful Tajh Boyd’s accuracy issues (his season-best 64.9% completion rate looked good on paper but not in person) or even the importance of earning the team’s first ACC win and avoiding, for a week anyway, talk of "pulling a Clemson." Instead, reporters immediately asked about one specific play.

    Down 13-7, Wolfpack receiver Brian Underwood electrified Carter-Finley Stadium with an 83-yard touchdown reception, setting up a chance to lead the third-ranked Tigers by a point (or more) with 7:31 remaining in the third. But line judge Richard Misner ruled that Underwood had stepped out of bounds at the Clemson 47-yard line. When the whistle was blown, the play was instantly dead, meaning that it couldn’t be reviewed from the replay booth.

    Within minutes, ACC coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads had vanished from the NC State press box. He was off to the instant replay booth so he could see all angles of the play. The former back judge knew that, regardless of whether the play could be officially reviewed, he needed to know exactly what it looked like, especially as the ESPN TV booth continued to question the call and NC State fans kept booing every scoreboard replay.

    It was a rare instance when freeze frames and replays contradicted one another. Multiple shots seemed to prove that Underwood had stayed in bounds. But at least one appeared to show the right side of his foot barely over the line. In the end, Rhoads explained, even if the whistle hadn’t blown, there wouldn’t have been enough evidence to overturn the on-field ruling.



    Just three plays later, NC State quarterback Pete Thomas fumbled. Five plays later, Clemson went up 20-7. The Pack never recovered, physically or mentally.

    As Swinney took his seat in the press room, he unknowingly spoke for many of his fellow coaches, not to mention thousands of fans, when it came to summing up a gross, sloppy Week 4 filled with mismatches, miscues and malaise from coast to coast. Yes, in the end nearly all of the teams that were supposed to win did. But like Clemson, most of them seemed uneasy, unsatisfied and anxious for Week 5.

    “Glad to get that one over," Swinney said. "We can’t load up the buses soon enough.”

    ESPN The Magazine

    Story of the Season, Week 1

    September, 3, 2013
    9/03/13
    11:00
    AM ET
    Vernon AdamsJaime Valdez/USA TODAY SportsEastern Washington QB Vernon Adams celebrates after defeating the Oregon State Beavers 49-46.
    For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the BCS championship game, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue on Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week's biggest moments and tell you why they'll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.

    IT'S SUCH A cliché to say that football is a game of inches. But tell me how many clichés ain’t the truth?

    Just a few days before the start of the 2013 season, HBO aired an episode of "The Newsroom" during which a preachy-yet-usually-correct anchorman (played by Jeff Daniels) opines about near-misses. How the direction of American history has been written as much by wobbly chairs and weird weather as it has by well-intentioned men and women. “So sometimes,” Daniels explained, leaned over a table, “it’s just the one thing.”

    On Saturday night, Mark Richt was also leaning over a table. He had just emerged from the visitors’ locker room at Memorial Stadium, having addressed his Georgia Bulldogs after a crushing 38-35 season-opening loss to the Clemson Tigers. Richt didn’t steal any lines from Daniels’ monologue, but what he said would have fit snugly into the script.

    “It’d been interesting to know what would have happened if we’d have made that short-range field goal.”

    With 1:05 remaining in the third quarter, the entire Georgia sideline joined Richt to watch a 20-yard field goal that would pull the Bulldogs even at 31-31. The coach was a little more anxious than normal about the chip shot because the kicker was Patrick Beless. The walk-on redshirt sophomore’s only other live-action field goal wasn’t even a live-action field goal. It was a 23-yarder in the team’s G-Day spring scrimmage.

    But Beless had been pressed into service because starting kicker Marshall Morgan was suspended by Richt after his boating under the influence arrest in late July. Throughout the rest of summer practice, Richt directly forbade all players involved with the kicking game to talk to the media, from punters to placekickers to holders to likable long-snapper Nathan Theus. Leading up to the weekend, Richt joked that everyone would know what the plan was “by halftime of the Clemson game.”

    The initial speculation was that another walk-on, junior Adam Erickson, would replace Morgan. But in the end, Richt decided that keeping Erickson, the backup punter, as the regular holder of Theus' snaps would provide stability.

    The Bulldogs’ opening drive ended in a punt, but their next four offensive series finished in the end zone. On all four PATs, Theus snapped it cleanly to Erickson, who placed it onto the turf perfectly for Beless, who flawlessly booted the ball through the uprights. Their first and only field goal attempt was little more than another extra point, with the line of scrimmage at the 2 and Erickson on his knees at the 10.

    Before the snap, Theus, a 6-foot-3, 241-pound redshirt sophomore, sensed a space open off his right shoulder, but off his left shoulder, he felt crowded. It was 6-1, 285-pound DeShawn Williams, aka Big Nuke 99, who had his head stuck in as close to being offside without actually being called offside as is humanly possible. Big Nuke’s left shoulder was essentially resting on Theus’ left shoulder.

    In the fraction of a second before the ball was snapped, all 20 men who were crammed along the line of scrimmage held completely still … except for Williams, who stomped his feet: left foot once, right foot twice.

    The long-snapper’s goal is to keep his actions smooth amid chaos, applying even pressure from both hands and moving both arms back in a perfectly parallel throwing motion, then seamlessly raising upright into a crouched blocking position. But Theus gave it a little too much gas with the left arm, the arm that had been all but resting against Williams’ shoulder. The good news was that he got a quick launch into Williams, driving the now-standing tackle out of the likely path of the football. The bad news was that the ball wasn’t coming.

    For Richt, who has long stuck to the practice of not having a special-teams coach, the most frustrating aspect of watching the play on Sunday morning was that the snap still looked pretty good. Erickson still nearly pulled it down. He managed to keep his knees bent and get his hands on the football. Had it been two knuckles lower, or had the 5-foot-10 holder been able to extend his arms perhaps one more inch, he might have pulled it down and gotten it set for Beless … and who knows?

    Instead, the ball fell to the turf and Erickson dived to smother it. Then he was smothered by Big Nuke. When Williams jumped up to celebrate, he crashed into a Georgia player, who promptly gave him a “get the hell off me” forearm shot. It was Theus, who didn’t know that at that exact moment he was being identified by Brent Musberger on national television. That never happens for a guy like Theus, unless the situation has gone horribly wrong.

    So did Georgia lose the game on that field goal try? No. As Richt explained during his postgame news conference, there were plenty of other chances to put Clemson away. The Bulldogs could have scored on the three plays leading up to the field goal attempt, all of them starting inside the Tigers' 6-yard line.

    But on Saturday night, there was only one play with which Richt played “what if?” And with Georgia's and Clemson’s schedules, it’s a what-if that could have repercussions far beyond Aug. 31 and well beyond Death Valley. Georgia rolls into another top-10 matchup, hosting South Carolina. The Tigers will see the Gamecocks at regular season’s end. If the Bulldogs win, they're still in the SEC East hunt. If Clemson loses, will we point to the Georgia win as proof the Tigers shouldn't be knocked out of the BCS title game?

    In other words, we could still be talking about Theus' snap when we get to Pasadena in January.

    “It’s very disappointing, but that’s football,” UGA receiver Justin Scott-Wesley explained before the team boarded the bus back to Athens. “It’s a game of inches.

    Told you.




    " Elsewhere in the cosmic tumblers department, it’s not misguided to think that the weekend’s slew of Davids slaying Goliaths could have far-reaching effects for other Goliaths as the season rolls along. When the Oregon State Beavers lose to Eastern Washington, it should send chills down the spine of the Stanford Cardinal, who narrowly escaped the Beavers one year ago and will travel to Corvallis on Oct. 26. Even a close game would hurt Stanford’s national rep, not to mention those of the USC Trojans (Nov. 1) and Oregon Ducks (Nov. 29). Same scenario applies for the schools of the Big 12 if they get “upset” by the Kansas State Wildcats, who were beaten by two-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State ...

    " But the biggest shock waves will likely be coming from Storrs, Conn., where the Huskies have started jackhammering the already thin ice beneath the Louisville Cardinals’ national title hopes. The American Athletic Conference was a mess entering the season, but when Towson toppled UConn, the whole league went down another notch. The Huskies host Teddy Bridgewater on Nov. 8, a game they won at Louisville in OT last season.

    " During NFL training camp, I had a conversation with former Appalachian State QB (current Carolina Panthers receiver) Armanti Edwards about being the little guys who beat the big guy and still have a chance to beat some other big guys. “I remember after we beat Michigan [in ’07] how everyone talked about them the rest of the year. I’ve talked to guys who played them later that year and they all say they were so scared to lose to Michigan because it’d be like they lost to us, too.” He mentioned Penn State and Florida, a pair of top-10 teams that fell to the Wolverines that year, as well as Notre Dame. Then he laughed. “We ended up wrecking a lot of people’s seasons, didn’t we?”




    This year’s version of Edwards is Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams. Against then-No. 25 Oregon State, he was 23-of-30 for 411 yards and four TDs through the air and ran for 107 yards and two TDs on the ground. Anyone who follows FCS football already knew he had explosive capabilities, but this year he looks more in control of his talents. A big reason for that is time spent over the summer with another Washington-based QB (and current ESPN The Mag cover model), Russell Wilson.

    Adams says they talked plenty about mechanics and football skills, but also about being the little guy. “We’re the same height, and people have always tried to say he’s too short. But he’s had a lot of success. Perhaps I can, too.”

    So far, so good.

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